Alabama’s path to the national title will be tougher in 2012 than it was last season. The Tide must travel to LSU, Arkansas and Missouri this year, and its neutral site game against Michigan looks to be more difficult than last year’s marquee non-conference game against offensively challenged Penn State.
So with the burden of a more difficult schedule and the weight of being the reigning college football champions, what can fans expect out of 2012?
Let’s take a game-by-game look.
September 1: Michigan (Arlington, TX)
Most preseason polls rank Michigan in the Top 15, if not Top 10. The Wolverines have a powerful offense that might be able to exploit some of the Tide’s youth on defense.
Michigan also catches a break by playing the game indoors, which eliminates the Southern heat as an ally in Alabama’s attempt to wear down its Big 10 foe with superior line play.
Michigan may score enough points to keep it close, but Alabama’s superior speed and physicality will be the difference. The pick: Alabama 27, Michigan 23.
September 8: Western Kentucky
Early season games against overmatched opponents like this mainly serve to get the young kids on the roster some experience. The score in this one will allow plenty of that.
The most interesting part of this game may be watching Alabama’s new backup quarterback, whoever that turns out to be, take some snaps. The pick: Alabama 48, Western Kentucky 7.
September 15: at Arkansas
Alabama caught a huge break when former Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino went hog wild with his mistress and ultimately got fired. Because this game is early in the season, Arkansas may still be adjusting to life under new coach John Smith, who also isn’t the tactician Petrino was.
If Alabama could win two years at Arkansas facing Ryan Mallett and Bobby Petrino with a less experienced defense than they have this season, I don’t see how they don’t pull this one out as well. The pick: Alabama 23, Arkansas 20.
September 22: Florida Atlantic
Florida Atlantic plays in a terrible conference and still only managed to win one game last season.
That’s all you need to know. The pick: Alabama 55, Florida Atlantic 0.
September 29: Ole Miss
Alabama’s competition stiffens from the previous week when it faces Ole Miss, but not by much. The Rebels are a mess right now, and new coach Hugh Freeze cannot be expected to right the ship in time to make this one competitive. The pick: Alabama 41, Ole Miss 10.
October 13: at Missouri
This one could be trouble. On the road, in an unfamiliar environment against a pretty good team with an unusual offense, Alabama will be tested against the SEC’s newest addition.
Having a bye week prior to this game will help Alabama prepare for the Tigers’ Big-12 style spread offense. Still, something about this game reminds of Alabama’s last ill-fated trip to a town called Columbia.
In 2010, the previously undefeated, defending-national-champion Tide came out flat on the road against South Carolina and never recovered. Call it déjà vu, or just a natural mid-season letdown, but Alabama looks vulnerable here. The pick: Missouri 27, Alabama 23.
October 20: at Tennessee
By all logic, Tennessee should be vastly improved this year.
Tennessee finished 5-7 last season playing much of the season without its best two players, quarterback Tyler Bray and receiver Da’Rick Rogers, who will both be healthy and more experienced this year.
If head coach Derrick Dooley doesn’t screw things up, Tennessee ought to win the large majority of its games this season. But Alabama beat the Vols by 31 points last year, and Tennessee won’t be that much better this season. The pick: Alabama 34, Tennessee 21.
October 27: Mississippi State
For whatever reason, the otherwise-potent Bulldogs have matched up poorly against Alabama during the Dan Mullen era, generally losing by a wider margin than the teams' talent margins would indicate.
Alabama’s defense confounds Mississippi State’s conservative offensive approach, and the Tide just seem to do every part of the game a little better than the Bulldogs. The pick: Alabama 27, Mississippi State 10.
November 3: at LSU
As it proved in the BCS title game, Alabama was the better team last year despite losing to the Tigers at home.
On paper, LSU looks to have a more complete team this year, so Alabama will try to reverse the table on the Tigers with a surprise away win. Only this time, Alabama won’t get to pick on Jordan Jefferson.
LSU, playing at home, is just the better team. The pick: LSU 16, Alabama 13.
November 10: Texas A&M
These two schools share an astounding amount of historical connections, considering they’ve spent their prior existence as non-conference rivals three states apart.
From Bear Bryant, to Gene Stallings to even Dennis Franchione, these programs have shared a whole lot of coaches, have similar colors and unique traditions born by virtue of living in football-mad Southern states.
This is going to be a great rivalry once A&M gets its program back on track. That won’t happen by November, though. The pick: Alabama 34, Texas A&M 17.
November 17: Western Carolina
See Florida Atlantic.
November 24: Auburn
Alabama has had a surprisingly difficult time winning the Iron Bowl at home.
The Tide is 3-2 against Auburn under Nick Saban, but only one of those wins came in Tuscaloosa. That one win, in 2008, is Alabama’s only home win over the Tigers since the Tide’s home games in this series moved back on campus in 2000.
Auburn will be improved this season from a talent perspective, but they are going to miss departed offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. That might be the difference. The pick: Alabama 27, Auburn 24.
Alabama looks on par for another 10-win season and possible Sugar Bowl bid.
The 2012 Tide won’t be quite as dominant as the team of the year before, but if Alabama beats its two-arch rivals, along with top-15 caliber teams like Arkansas and Michigan, Tide fans will still end the season feeling good about what their team accomplished.
And with a few fortunate bounces here and there, they might end up feeling even better.